A buddy just sent me this link to RevolutionMuslim.com’s Abu Talha al-Amriki attempting to refute a report by West Point’s CTC in his recent essay, ”A Refutation Of The Claims Of West Point Saying That Al-Qa’ida Kills Mostly Muslims.”
For background, RM is a pro-jihadist group of online guys – jihobbyists if you will – that used to be ‘e-mired’ (get it?) by Yousef al-Khattab. If you read my blog, you’ll know al-Khattab recently handed the reigns to Abdallah as-Sayf Jones. There are a number of other contributors to the site, including this “Abu Talha al-Amriki” (I guess his kunya creativity quotient was low that day) and al-Khattab’s bff, brother Younes.
I am simply fascinated by the fact that two Americans – Abu Talha al-Amriki, and his co-author, Younes Abdallah Mohammad – are actually trying to engage in a real, intellectual debate with counterterrorism analysts.
To be clear, I am not speaking on behalf of CTC in this post. Although I did serve at West Point’s CTC from July 2004 – May 2008, I am no longer affiliated with CTC as Abu Talha suggests ( heck, I don’t even appear on the CTC’s alumni page). My goal here is to simply offer my readers ‘Brachman’s Take’ on RM’s refutation and situate that refutation in the broader context of jihadist thought.
I’m also responding because the RM report comes after me directly, on the topic of Abu Yahya al-Libi’s recommendations for how the United States might best degrade al-Qaida’s ideology. This is a sore spot for them as several RM dudes have tried to refute my argument that Abu Yahya blew it on that.
Remember, my position is that if we listen to a jihadi, we can better understand what gets under their skin. Just like I tried to highlight in my last about with Abu Yahya, taking their statements point by point can yield tremendous insights into what keeps them up at night. So, let’s begin.
The West Point CTC study that RM is seeking to refute is: “Deadly Vanguards: A Study of Al-Qaida’s Violence Against Muslims.” You can find it here. I’ll lay out RM’s refutations and comment on each of them.
- RM: “You will notice that [CTC Associate], Dr. Helfstein was aided by two apostates from the religion and that he will inevitably be the one roaming around and publicizing the report, but it serves in the U.S. military’s interests to attach two Arab names onto the report thus furthering the ultimate objective of the operation, to relegate Al-Qa’ida and their narrative to the fringe of the Islamic world thus preventing them from gaining ideological and sentimental backing and thereby subsequent physical aid.”
- JB: The boys at RM are bothered by the fact that two of the co-authors on the CTC report are Arab Muslims. RM tries to mitigate the damage of having Muslims criticizing al-Qaida by pointing to the fact that the West Point CTC is a U.S. military entity and, therefore, according to RM, an instrument in its overall plan to marginalize the jihadist ideology. It’s a clever spin, but an incorrect characterization of the CTC.
- RM: “The [CTC] report is initiated with some nonsensical claims with regard to its methodology… It also has nothing to do with actual science. Utilizing journalism and the estimation that is usually associated amidst the competition of reporting attacks before other agencies do certainly serves to manipulate the data set as hypothetical rather than actual. Furthermore the report utilizes data provided by organizations that are explicitly against Islam…Thus it is more an example of what has become typical Western “academia’s” black propaganda campaign against Islam. It is not science but is an effort to place a scientific face on a means of ideological war.”
- JB: The problem is that RM’s qualm here is not methodological but epistemological. They don’t necessarily reject the approach of using data and statistics to make their points. In fact, that’s what RM uses in their essays to try and substantiate that AQ is “winning.” Rather, RM simply rejects the legitimacy of this source of knowledge. In other words, their basic argument is with what constitutes ‘credible truth.’ In essence, they are speaking past the CTC report because their argument cannot be countered other than to simply reject the epistemological basis on which it is made.
- RM: “In fact, were the scientists at West Point to have conducted a similar analysis of death caused by the U.S. military, the statistics may be very much lower than fifteen percent militants killed. Likewise, in Afghanistan overwhelming numbers of civilians are killed as troops caught in the crossfire of a guerilla force they cannot see simply call in for aerial support on whatever location is closest. Countless times this has led to the bombing of villages and even weddings where no militants were killed whatsoever. Fortunately for the colonialist occupiers they simply blame insurgents for blending in with a civilian population, but this is exactly what the U.S. and its western allies do and how thereby the data is skewed by the way they define “non-westerners”.
- JB: On this point, RM is arguing that the CTC should turn the mirror back on the U.S. military’s actions to see that the statistics it presents about Al-Qaida would pale in comparison to the number of innocent Muslims that the U.S. military has killed. I think it’s a well played point but still rests on a faulty premise that, unfortunately cannot be countered. Specifically, RM premises this counter-attack on the fact that Al-Qaida and the U.S. military are equally legitimate. Although I could say that AQ is an illegitimate force whose actions are the primary reason the US military is in Afghanistan to begin with, but the boys at RM would simply reject the assertion. Again, we’re arguing from two separate epistemological foundations and, therefore, come to irreconcilable conclusions.
- RM: “A closer look at the “data” reveals that in fact 254 out of 329 events analyzed came from Iraq; this represents 77 percent of the cases, and so a civil war initiated by Shiites against a minority Sunni population utilizing the weaponry given to the Shiite regime from the U.S. is now being used as evidence against Al-Qa’ida, because they chose to retaliate in like manner rather than face inevitable genocide and slaughter…Thus the majority of data, in this case people killed, contained in the report are a result of the U.S.’s allegiance with the enemies against the people of Quran and Sunnah. This reality accounts for most of the skewed data, but also affects the statistics for the rest of the report as well.”
- JB: Well, I’ll defer to CTC to defend its methodology on this criticism. RM’s point is that, because the US invaded Iraq and then threw their support behind the Shia, that the Sunnis were put in a do-or-die position where they either had to fight back or risk being exterminated. The majority of these attacks, then, would have been conducted under the tenure of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leader considered to have ‘gone rogue’ by the AQ senior leadership. RM does spark a good question about how regional franchise groups working against the stated desires of AQ-SL fit under the AQ umbrella when it comes to objective academic analysis.
- RM: “The fundamentals of this study are so flawed that one has to wonder if these people ever took a High School rhetoric class.”
- JB: Note to RM, if you want to have a real debate, cut the ad hominems. You sound like amateurs when you talk like this.
- RM: “This study even intentionally excludes the deaths of the Madrid bombings and the ones in London at certain points in order to skew the results. If one was to apply similar tactics to the United States, then one could say, “Excluding attacks in foreign countries, the United States actually kills Americans more than foreigners.” Such statements are factually misleading and they have no place in an “unbiased” study. Arbitrarily excluding certain things in order to lower the number of non-Muslims whom al-Qa’ida has killed is unethical by any standard of research.”
- JB: Just an observation on this point – I’m struck by how post-modern it is that we have an anonymous American al-Qaida supporter arguing about what constitutes ”biased” and “ethical” research. The problem is that RM misunderstood the reason that the CTC report excluded Madrid and London – CTC was actually making their point harder to prove, not easier, by doing that. RM is wrong on this point.
- RM: “This report is merely a reproduction and implementation of [Abu Yahya al-Libi's recommendation for how to defeat al-Qaida that Brachman wrote about] and an effort to float as science a study that could be picked up by the press, especially the Arab press, and then used to detract Al-Qa’ida sympathizers. Science like this is not science at all but is dangerous propaganda in that it justifies the use of terrorism and violence and seeks support for the real civilian atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan committed by Americans under the guise of justification that they are only killing terrorists.”
- This is my favorite part. RM uses a piece I wrote in order to indict the CTC Report as being propaganda. Well played RM! Ironically, it’s your guy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who threw you guys under the bus by being a bit too cute.
So, there’s a few more arguments in their report but you get the drift. What’s most impressive to me is that the jihobbyists over at RM were willing to take that report seriously enough to dedicate some real brainpower to trying to refute it. I don’t think that they accomplished their goal, but it shows that the CTC report did bother them enough to want to try and mitigate the damage and co-opt the arguments (it’s a control thing that al-Zawahiri frequently does when he feels like somebody else is setting the rhetorical agenda).
If I were the authors of either study, I’d consider holding a public debate (webcasted of course) on neutral ground where the various constituencies could make their own decisions. What a step forward that would be for both sides in trying to make meaningful change in perception.